Washington focuses on plight of Mideast’s minorities

Washington focuses on plight of Mideast’s minorities

House and Senate bills, coupled with Obama’s Bethlehem visit, may signal a keen interest in the tribulations of non-Muslim groups

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Illustrative: The domes of the Coptic Saint Mark's Church in Cairo, Egypt (photo credit: CC BY Bakar_88, Flickr)
Illustrative: The domes of the Coptic Saint Mark's Church in Cairo, Egypt (photo credit: CC BY Bakar_88, Flickr)

WASHINGTON – In the wake of the upheavals of the Arab Spring, US leaders are showing a growing interest in the condition and difficulties faced by the Middle East’s religious minorities.

Legislation introduced in Congress proposes the establishment of a high-level special envoy who would track violations of religious freedom. The Senate version of the legislation was introduced on March 22, the same day that President Barack Obama visited Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity during his three-day trip to the region. A senior White House official, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes, characterized the president’s visit to the church as a “signal” that the US was paying attention to the plight of Christians in the region.

Christians and other minorities have faced rampant and often violent persecution in the Middle East in recent decades, leading to a dramatic dwindling of their numbers. A 2011 Pew Forum study on religious persecution worldwide found a dramatic increase in persecution experienced by religious minorities in many Middle Eastern countries over the past decade, with Egypt leading the increase, followed by the likes of Algeria, Yemen, Syria and Iran.

In Iraq, “ethno-religious minorities… have been subjected to ethnic strife and the ravages of war,” explains the website of Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), a Chaldean Catholic of Assyrian descent. “These ancient Christian people once numbered more than 1.5 million, but today are fewer than 400,000.”

“Too often we in the West have turned a blind eye to the suffering of persecuted people of faith,” according to Rep. Frank Wolf, who in January, together with Eshoo, introduced the House bill dubbed H.R. 301, which would establish the special envoy position.

“Having a single high-level person within the State Department bureaucracy charged with this pivotal task will send an important message to both our own foreign policy establishment and to suffering communities in the Middle East and elsewhere that religious freedom is a priority — that America will be a voice for the voiceless,” Wolf said.

In the wake of an October 31, 2010, bombing of an Assyrian Catholic church in Baghdad, the State Department itself noted in a letter to Eshoo that “we agree that this community — and other minority communities — are extremely vulnerable and need specific attention.”

A bill establishing a special envoy dealing with the issue already passed overwhelmingly in the House during the last Congress, by a vote of 402 to 20, but stalled last year in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The new Senate bill, S. 653, introduced on March 22 by senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Carl Levin (D-MI), is expected to do better than the last one. The previous bill stalled in committee largely due to opposition from the State Department, which is often resistant to Congressional efforts to dictate the department’s structure or policy priorities. The bill was held up by then-senator Jim Webb (D-VA).

But Webb retired from the Senate in 2012, and the bill’s supporters believe that it now stands a better chance of passing out of committee and to the Senate floor.

According to the language of the Senate bill, the high-level envoy would be directly appointed by the president “to promote religious freedom of religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia,” to “promote the right of religious freedom of religious minorities in the countries of the Near East… denounce the violation of such right, and recommend appropriate responses by the United States Government when such right is violated.”

The position would also “monitor and combat acts of religious intolerance and incitement targeted against religious minorities,” “work to ensure that the unique needs of religious minority communities … are addressed, including the economic and security needs of such communities,” and even work with the region’s governments to “address laws that are discriminatory” in those countries.

The initiative has already garnered the support of prominent US Christian groups.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission praised H.R. 301 and said the new envoy’s appointment would mean that the Middle East’s “religious minorities — a significant percentage of whom are Christians regularly subject to intense persecution — would have a strong voice from the United States speaking out specifically on their behalf.”

The Catholic Church, too, has expressed support. In a letter to Wolf and Eshoo, the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called the “protection of religious freedom” a “cornerstone of the structure of human rights.”

“The bishops have long been concerned over the plight of religious minorities, particularly Christian communities in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt, India and Pakistan, many of whom have lived for centuries side by side with those of other faiths, but now find themselves coming under increased attack and harassment. Such attacks have led many to flee, becoming displaced within their own country or escaping across the borders to seek refugee status, uncertain as to what the future holds,” the bishops’ letter read.

Those sentiments were echoed by the White House ahead of President Obama’s late-March visit to one of Christianity’s holiest sites, Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, built over the spot many Christians believe was the birthplace of Jesus. In a conference call with reporters a week before Obama’s visit, the White House’s Ben Rhodes explained that the visit was meant to underscore the “very difficult series of challenges for Christian communities in the region.” These challenges were “not just in the West Bank, but [also in] places like Syria, Egypt and Iraq… We’ve underscored the need to protect the rights of minorities. The visit to the Church of the Nativity is intended to send that signal.”

The initiative to establish the special envoy position grew out of a January 2011 hearing on the issue in the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the House. The hearing took place just weeks after the start of the earliest demonstrations of what would become known as the Arab Spring.

Commission co-chair Frank Wolf had just returned from a trip to Lebanon and Egypt, where he had met with Coptic Christians and other religious minorities. The feeling at the time, according to a spokesperson for Wolf, was that “these issues have ripple effects for the broader promise of pluralism, religious freedom, democracy. Religious freedom is the first freedom. If it’s not being protected that’s an indication [that other rights are threatened].”

Wolf’s experience meeting persecuted minorities in the region led him to convene the hearing, which heard testimony about Christians, Baha’is and others. Rep. Eshoo testified before the commission, as did an Egyptian nun who would only speak in the hearing from behind a screen, fearing retribution back home.

“I meet many people [from the Middle East] who are baffled and concerned that the West doesn’t seem to be that interested in their plight,” he related in an interview with Christianity Today in November 2011, shortly after publishing a book on the subject. “Three nuns from Iraq just came to my office. They said they feel abandoned. Half the Christian community in Iraq is now living in ghettos in Damascus, Lebanon, and Jordan.

“Not only should churches in the West be advocating and praying for persecuted believers, but everyone should be advocating for religious freedom,” Wolf added. “During the 1980s, when Secretary [of State George] Shultz would go to China, he would meet with the dissidents or with their families. The American embassy was an island of freedom. We don’t see that same passion today, either within or outside the church.”

H.R. 301 is widely expected to pass. The fate of the Senate bill may depend on a meeting next week of Foreign Relations Committee staff who will determine S. 653’s placement on the committee’s agenda this session.

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